HALIFAX — Health officials in Nova Scotia expanded the province's vaccine rollout Friday but warned that a backlog in COVID-19 test processing meant there were likely many more new infections than the 67 they reported.
Dr. Robert Strang, chief medical officer of health, told reporters about 45,000 tests haven't been processed yet because the province's laboratory is overwhelmed. Nova Scotia has 589 active reported cases but Strang said that number will climb.
"The data entry backlog means today's case numbers are actually in all likelihood much higher," Strang said, after reporting 67 new cases in the province. "We know there will be positive cases in this backlog and we need to be prepared for substantially higher case numbers over the next few days."
He said the backlog is the result of large numbers of Nova Scotians turning out for testing, adding that the lab can handle 15,000 tests a day but had hit its limit. Work is ongoing to clear the backlog and short-term changes are being made to match capacity with demand, he said.
Stang said effective immediately, people can only book tests if they are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, are close contacts of a confirmed case, have been at potential exposure sites, or who have travelled outside Nova Scotia, P.E.I. and Newfoundland and Labrador.
"If you are not in one of these groups and you have an appointment, we are asking that you cancel," Strang said. He added that people still wishing to be tested can do so at pop-up rapid testing sites.
He warned that the province is in the midst of a serious outbreak and said stresses are starting to be felt in the health-care system. There are currently 22 people in hospital with the disease, including five patients in intensive care.
Fifty-seven new cases were identified in the Halifax area on Friday, four were in the western health zone, and three new cases were identified in both the eastern and northern zones.
Strang said he was informed of the lab problems within the last 24 hours and that he believes the issues should be resolved over the weekend.
Also Friday, the province expanded access to the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, allowing people between 40 and 54 to book appointments. Health officials said they dropped the age based on guidance from the federal expert panel on immunization and because of a rapid rise in COVID-19 infections that has led to a provincewide lockdown.
Officials said about 195,000 people in the 40-to-54 age group are eligible for a shot at 61 pharmacies and physician offices across the province. Appointments for the AstraZeneca vaccine remain open to people 55 to 64 years old.
Strang said that as of this week, more than 30 per cent of eligible Nova Scotians had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. He said more than 80 per cent of people aged 70 and over had received at least one dose, as had around 75 per cent of those 65 to 69.
Meanwhile, a small business owner in Halifax is voicing concerns about a lack of government support for businesses forced to close during the two-week provincewide lockdown, which is scheduled to remain in effect until at least May 12.
Lara Cusson, who operates Cafe Lara, said small businesses have heard little from Premier Iain Rankin to instil confidence. Rankin had assured small businesses on Thursday that his government is working on a support package.
"They needed to get it out two days ago," Cusson said in an interview Friday.
Even if aid is announced in the next few days, it will likely take even longer for it to get to those who need the help, she said, adding that the province's property tax rebate program isn't rolling out fast enough.
"It was announced on March 2 and we still don't have access to that," she said about the tax program.
Rankin said Friday he hopes to have more news on Monday about help for businesses.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 30, 2021.
Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press